Can You Reclaim Your Email With Microsoft Office Graph Tools?

Email is a commodity -- and sometimes a curse. Could adding Microsoft services such as Delve and Clutter make it useful again?

email clutter computer laptop user

There’s little competitive advantage in running your own mail server anymore; that’s one reason Office 365 is growing so fast. But with tools like Delve and Clutter, Microsoft is keen to position it as a way to get more value out of communications -- especially as the anti-email movement gains credibility from the popularity of enteprise messaging services like Slack.

Dropping email entirely isn’t realistic for most companies, and stunts like “no email Fridays” are usually about publicity. At best, they may raise awareness about how to use email more effectively. The abuse of email fills inboxes with everything from unwanted newsletters, to routine status information that belongs in workflow systems, to endless discussions about where to have the team lunch.

[Related: Delve, Office Graph Must Transcend Office 365 to Be Revolutionary ]

Can you reclaim email as something useful for your business by investing in services that filter messages to highlight what’s important and mine discussions to find what people need to know?

Can Microsoft Tools Clear Mail Clutter?

Over the years, plenty of tools -- from wikis to SharePoint to Yammer and Slack -- have claimed to unlock information that would otherwise be trapped in email, making it easy for new team members to get up to speed on projects because all the communications about them are public. The technology here matters less than the discipline of getting people to keep those communications in one place. (Consistent archiving is also key for compliance and ediscovery, which is more difficult when staff adopt ad hoc messaging systems.)

Enterprise messaging and enteprise social networking -- whether it’s Slack’s IRC-like channels or Yammer’s Facebook and Twitter-like fast updates -- are often adopted by employees trying to find a faster way to pass information around. The bigger impact comes when all that visible, public communication cuts across traditional hierarchies and workflows, sparking organizational changes.

[Related: 10 Microsoft Power BI for Office 365 Success Stories ]

One problem is that unless everyone switches, you now have two parallel communications channels. Yammer tries to bridge the gap to people who still work through email: Join in a conversation on Yammer and you’ll get it all mailed to you as well, and you can reply without ever visiting the Yammer website or loading up a Yammer client, with mail attachments getting loaded into the Yammer document store automatically.

Microsoft delve attachments

Delve highlights files shared with you -- not all email attachments, just those from active conversations. (Click for larger image.)

The other problem is that even if you get everyone on a new messaging system like Yammer or Slack, the same bad habits carry over from email. You soon start seeing inappropriate messages about badly parked cars and charity sponsorship showing up in companywide channels, the same as in a company-wide mailing list.

The Office 365 services Microsoft is building on top of its Office Graph take a different approach, trying to filter and curate communications, whether they’re email, Yammer messages, spreadsheets and presentations, or even video and voice conversations. The Office Graph mines the pattern of communications and the relationships they imply; who you email, who replies to you -- and how quickly.

[Related: Microsoft Unveils De-Cluttering Option for Office 365 Mailboxes ]

If you always respond very quickly to messages from a certain person, that sender is likely to be important to you -- and is probably your boss. If you leave messages from another sender for three weeks and then delete them almost as soon as you open them, that person is probably not very interesting to you. The Clutter service in Office 365 uses that to filter those less-interesting messages into a folder (which automatically shows up as a favorite folder in Outlook so it’s easy to spot when messages have been filed there). If the Office Graph figures out who your boss and your direct reports are, Clutter never filters out mail from them.

You can train Clutter by marking messages as clutter or not clutter -- or just deleting and ignoring messages you don’t care about and dragging messages you do care about back to the inbox. Clutter can cope when you reply to the wrong message or ignore something that's important (perhaps because you make a phone call instead -- which Clutter might one day know about if you use Lync).

The danger with automated systems is that if they get things wrong, you stop being able to rely on the systems they’re trying to enhance. False positives mean spam filters still block legitimate messages sometimes -- but recommendation algorithms are good enough that we rely on them for Web search and shopping on Amazon and picking movies on Netflix.

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